• Sun. Jul 14th, 2024

Fringe 2023: 1984

ByJack Ferguson

Aug 27, 2023
A Winston Smith wanted poster, the outline of his face carrying a red line down the middle.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

CW: spoilers for George Orwell’s ‘1984’

Whilst this adaptation of 1984 suffers from a jarring narrative structure, it is saved by raw, uninhibited performances that perfectly capture savage dehumanisation and its effects. 

An elderly Caucasian face appears on the television screen above the stage, its glaring eyes grasping each audience member in their unrelenting stare. Big Brother is watching you. This show is an adaptation of George Orwell’s famous satire of a totalitarian state punishing one of its subjects, Winston, for questioning the very nature of the suffocating society he lives in. It’s a society where free thought is stamped out using the diluted language of Newspeak, and where Doublethink is encouraged. Lies are believed regardless of an awareness of the truth. 

This adaptation cleverly carves up and rearranges the narrative structure of Orwell’s famous novel. The play begins near the novel’s end with Winston already having been exposed as a traitorous comrade and incarcerated. The first two-thirds of the play show Winston having flashbacks to what you could argue is a Greatest Hits playlist of famous, hugely quotable, scenes from the novel, where Newspeak and Doublethink are discussed, and where the blossoming romance between Winston and Julia is shown. This structure is a neat trick for those who are already hugely familiar with the novel, as they can quickly relive pivotal scenes. Yet those who haven’t read the source material may struggle to piece together the various plot threads hinted at by the flashbacks. Also, the fact that key scenes from the novel are presented as the recurring recollections of a traumatised, dreaming Winston means that one flashback is repeated a few times, diminishing its impact.

This adaptation is also hindered by a jarring narrative structure where there is a constant segue in the first two-thirds of the play between live stage performance and pre-recorded film footage. The latter tells the story of how Winston met the rebellious, free-thinking Julia and covers their developing relationship. The pre-recorded scenes, whilst sweet, are not entirely convincing, and do not create the degree of immersion that is required and, arguably, expected in a live theatre performance. In the theatre, nothing beats being swept up in the furious passion of committed actors who are baring their souls in a live performance happening right in front of you. It seems like a missed opportunity to have a theatre audience watch pre-recorded scenes on a television screen when onstage the performers playing Winston and Julia could have simply acted those scenes out, which likely would have made the audience get a better sense of the chemistry between the two characters. 

In the third act, the torture scenes are played out live, and thankfully so. This is when the drama kicks up several gears. Orion Powell shines playing Winston. His performance is so raw, so animalistic, it is almost unwatchable. Yet breathlessly watchable. Powell suffers for his art as he bares all, mentally and physically. Daniel Llewelyn-Williams, playing Winston’s interrogator O’Brien, counters Powell’s broken feral agitation with an equally powerful reserved, unforgiving demeanour. It is a huge pleasure to watch actors of this calibre tread the boards.  

This adaptation of 1984 is a classic example of too much style getting in the way of the real substance of a story, which, in the case of this adaptation, is the performances. A strong argument can be made for this production getting rid of the media accompaniments and allowing every scene to play out live onstage.  This way, in every scene, audiences can feel the passion, rage and torment conveyed by the actors, up close and personal. Just a few feet away. 

Image from The Assembly Press Office issued to The Student for press material

By Jack Ferguson